A street-level alcoholic urinates in a public park in front of children.
Or steals liquor from a local store.
Or sleeps in the doorway of a business.
All are common sights for Flagstaff residents and police.
In an effort to cut down on petty and serious crime, Flagstaff police started an operation at the beginning of the year aimed at getting law-breaking, alcoholic transients off the street earlier in the day.
The results, so far, have police officials "cautiously optimistic" that they are reducing the crime rate in the city. Misdemeanor and felony reports have fallen year-to-date from the same period the year before. And although contacts with drunken transients has gone down, misdemeanor arrests have gone up.
"We saw a big increase in vagrancy-related crime just after the first of the year," said Sgt. Tom Boughner of the police department. He added that residents and businesses were also complaining more often about drunken transients committing crimes in their areas.
So police officials crafted "Operation 40," Boughner said. The operation takes its name both from the interstate that runs through the city, bringing with it large numbers of transients, and the 40- ounce fortified beers that street alcoholics prefer because they're cheap and powerful.
The purpose of the operation is to enforce all petty violations committed by street alcoholics, Boughner said. Those offenses include: Panhandling, drinking in public, trespassing, littering, urinating in public and disorderly conduct.
PREVENTING SERIOUS CRIME
Boughner added that the operation is not an attempt to criminalize homelessness, which he speculated critics might call it. Instead, it is police taking action against the criminal element most often associated with vagrancy, he added.
"It's not a new problem to Flagstaff," Boughner said. "The big effort is to try and prevent more serious Part I crimes."
Part I crimes are reported annually to the FBI and include murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, felony theft, auto theft and arson.
The intent of officers is to try to catch alcoholic street transients committing petty crimes earlier in the day, before they get too drunk and make themselves prone to committing even more serious crimes. Also, the earlier in the day street alcoholics are arrested, the less likely they are to end up at the hospital to be stabilized. They can also be more apt to accept the offer of treatment at either the county jail, or The Guidance Center's detox unit.
And, whenever police policy allows it, officers are to make "in custody" arrests, which means a stay in the county jail, Boughner said. Police policy states that if a person being arrested can show a permanent address with good identification and does not pose an ongoing threat to the community, that person can be ticketed and released.
"I think we're starting to see some payoff now, because we're intervening earlier in the day," Boughner said.
Boughner said Chief Brent Cooper is cautiously optimistic of the statistics, but more time is needed to tell if the operation is having an impact.
Year to date, misdemeanor and felony reports taken by police have declined from 2007 to 2008, according to reports from the police department. But misdemeanor arrests have gone up 10 percent from the year before. And felony arrests have gone down.
Contacts with publicly drunk transients have gone down more than 17 percent from the year before.
Boughner said that the reduction in contacts with public drunks and misdemeanor and felony reports taken appears to be linked to the greater number of in-custody arrests.
Even though in-custody misdemeanor arrests have gone up, the population of jail inmates at the county jail is down in 2008 for the same time in 2007, according to a Coconino County Sheriff's Office analysis. The average daily population of inmates at the 596-bed jail, as of Thursday, was 440, well below the 80-percent safe operating capacity of 477.
In total, about 360 arrests have been made in Operation 40, Boughner said.
As with the creation of Operation 40, Flagstaff police have been using the CompStat system of up-to-date statistics to identify problem areas in the city and what could be done to address the problem.
Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or email@example.com.
Flagstaff crime statistics
YTD 2008/YTD 2007
Misdemeanor reports 6,400/6,537
Misdemeanor arrests 4,586/4,144
In custody 3,287/2,967
Felony reports 1,854/2,039
Felony arrests 565/611
Public intoxicant contacts 2,169/2,623
— Source: Flagstaff Police Department
Jail population comparison
— Source: Coconino County Sheriff's Office